The novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” written by Shirley Jackson in 1959, is a classic that frequently appears on lists of the greatest horror books of all time. There have been a few film adaptations of the novel.
One appeared in 1963, only a few years after the novel was published, and another came 36 years later in 1999. Everyone who loves horror should read the novel but is it worth watching the 1999 movie? How faithful is it to the novel?
The novel versus the movie – the overall impression
In the novel, Jackson gives Hill House a foreboding character, although its motivations, if any, stay an impenetrable secret. Rather she focuses on the effects the house has on its temporary occupants. Her novel is a psychologically complex work of fiction with themes of familial torment and isolation.
The 1999 movie is laden with special effects, and although they make the movie scary, the characters are less dimensional and something is missing in the plausibility. You will only find suggestions in the movie of the psychological subtleties in the novel.
The novel is about several people brought together at the country house by a professor, Dr. Montague, for the purpose of investigating supposed paranormal phenomena. Two of the three participants in the novel have experienced prior paranormal experiences, and the third is related to the current owner of the house.
In the 1999 movie, the professor’s name becomes Dr. Marrow and he wants to conduct a study on the psychology of fear. He invites insomniacs to Hill House under the guise of conducting a sleep study. This seems a little strange when there is no real reason not to use the original plot of a paranormal study. There’s also a back story about the previous owners, dead children, and Nell’s connection to the house.
The guests in the house in both the novel and the movie are Eleanor Vance, a 32-year old lonely and somewhat mysterious woman, Theodora, an artist with some ESP abilities who could be bisexual, and Luke, a future inheritor of Hill House, and spoiled rich boy.
In the 1999 movie, Lilli Taylor plays Eleanor (Nell), and Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Theo. Nell is strange and flighty, with a desire to find freedom after being imprisoned in a caretaker role for her invalid mother for 11 years. Theo is cold, flirty, and flippant. Liam Neeson, as Dr. Marrow, comes across as very doctor-like and dad-like, and Owen Wilson plays Luke in his usual fashion.
Summary of essays on “The Haunting of Hill House”
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In the novel, Eleanor feels a sense of belonging in the house despite the fact that it is ‘not sane’ and her increasing affection for it puts her at odds with Theo.
Many apparently supernatural events take place in the house and one is never quite sure whether they are supernatural or a product of the characters’ imaginations. In the movie, the interiors in the movie are alive with menace and rich in detail. The halls are cavernous and ominous corridors reverberate with echoing noises.
In the novel, the other guests attempt to force Eleanor out because they observe her growing insanity firsthand. She decides the only way to stay is to die on the grounds and plows the car she stole from her sister into the great tree near the gates.
In the movie, Eleanor also dies, as she did in the novel, but her death is a pure sacrifice as it’s a means of protecting the ghost children of Hill House who were worked to death by the first owner of the house.
The 1999 movie is entertaining and scary, but it doesn’t offer the subtleties and psychological complexities found in the novel. The special effects in the movie are creative and evoke a haunted house in unexpected ways, making it scarier than the story itself. At times the fact that the story is a mess doesn’t matter due to the fascination with the house, which feels more like entering virtual reality than looking at a set.